As working conditions become more uncertain and exploitative, new militant unions are flourishing to represent workers in precarious sectors. The larger traditional unions can learn an important lesson from these radical, fighting examples.
Unemployment is officially at its lowest rate since 1974, at 3.8%. Yet in the decade since the 2008 crash, the UK has seen the lowest level of wage growth in over 200 years. This has been accompanied by a massive attack by the bosses on working conditions.
The number of workers in Britain in precarious employment increased in the decade between 2006 and 2016 from 5.3 million to 7.1 million. Some estimates put the current figure at almost 10 million. Faced with stagnating pay and brutal austerity, more and more people are having to take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet. In the latter half of 2018, a third of newly created jobs went to people who are already working. And this process is only accelerating.
This increasing precarity has been thanks, in no small part, to the rise of ‘new’ kinds of employment, such as the gig economy. This includes digital piecework like Amazon Mechanical Turn, and services such as Uber or Deliveroo. Many rely on these as their primary source of income. But increasingly, this kind of work is used to supplement meagre wages. It is estimated that nearly half of ‘millennials’ in the US have resorted to the gig economy in this way.
This global phenomenon has been termed ‘platform capitalism’. In reality, however, this trend reflects the path that capitalism has always taken: pushing down working conditions in order to boost the capitalists’ profits.
This kind of bogus ‘self-employment’ has enabled the bosses to avoid the legal requirements of most ‘normal’ employers. And it has created a mass of workers, dubbed the ‘precariat’, with limited ability to collectively organise. At the same time, the capitalists get away with not providing workers with the statutory rights that they are entitled to, such as sick leave, parental leave or holiday pay.
Additionally, through these methods, business owners avoid having to invest in infrastructure or equipment themselves. In the cases of taxi or food delivery services, workers must provide their own vehicles, pay for petrol and maintenance, and cover any damage or injury sustained while on a job.
This has led to a situation, for example, where drivers are unable to afford their own vehicle and have to rent them instead from companies through Uber’s fleet licensing scheme. The earnings for trips are paid directly to the companies who own the vehicles, and workers are often only paid after reaching a certain ride quota; and, of course, after these middlemen have taken a cut.
Stories have circulated on social media describing how many who are unable to afford (or do not have the credit rating) to buy or rent a car normally undertake this kind of work on top of their main job – simply to have access to a car to travel to work, in the absence of adequate public transport.
I tend to be cynical about the idea of Late Capitalism, but an Uber driver last night told me a story which made my jaw hit the floor.
He picked me up, and apologised for the congestion.
“You see all these cars, though? They’re owned by the same person”. (1/9)
— Imran Khan (@imrankhan) February 19, 2020
This parasitic form of employment provides a challenge to unions. In many cases, trade union memberships have been in decline for decades, and are in dire need of revitalisation. Winning the right to collective bargaining – or even recognition as employees – has been a tough battle. And traditional union structures have often not been able to respond to these new challenges.
But of course, these challenges are not entirely new. And there is a new generation of unions that are learning the lessons of history and are taking the fight to the bosses in the 21st century.
Many groups of workers have for years been all but written off as unorganisable by the traditional union leaderships – such as outsourced, migrant cleaners and security guards. But recently these workers have begun to flex their muscles.
For example, wildcat strike action has been successful in campaigns to end outsourcing in places like the London School of Economics, King’s College London, the Daily Mail Group, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. They have shut down roads, picketed events, and stormed the Tate Modern. And a new wave of unions are emerging to help organise gig economy workers and encourage them to take militant action.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has built a membership of nearly 5000 since its foundation in 2012. Its sister union, the United Voice of the World (UVW), founded in 2014, has 3000 members, and is reportedly increasing in size at a rate of 200 a month.
Among the groups organised by these unions are Uber drivers and couriers; outsourced cleaners; receptionists and security guards; foster carers; and video game workers.
The IWGB have taken Uber and several other companies to court for legal employee recognition. But they do not stop at legalistic methods. They have successfully linked many of these different struggling workers together, fostering class solidarity and collective action. In December last year, outsourced workers at University College London (UCL) went on strike alongside lecturers in the UCU. And in 2018, they held a protest of all forms of precarious workers, backed by the CWU, UVW and the Hackney Picturehouse Living Wage Campaign.
Whilst bigger unions have focused merely on gaining official collective bargaining status, the IWGB are happy to organise workers on strike regardless. In the case of the UCL struggle, the recognised union is Unison. But the IWGB helped workers organise a strike, while Unison officials were content to continue with further backroom negotiations with management.
The dire, alienating working conditions of outsourced and gig economy labour – and the prospect of five more years of Tory austerity – will only radicalise more workers in the coming period. Trade unions must be able to harness this militancy and enthusiasm, and use it to its full potential.
For a long time, the leadership of the biggest unions have been too passive and conservative in the face of a tighter squeeze on their members. But now we have caught a glimpse, on a small scale, of what is possible when workers are provided with radical leadership and fighting unions.
With disputes underway for postal workers in the CWU, bus drivers, and UCU lecturers, we can see that a shift from the political plane to industrial struggle is already starting to unfold. In order to be successful, the lessons of these new unions must be learned: to be bold, militant, and unafraid of taking action against the bosses.
We must also recognise that these struggles are not separate. The same logic that has led to outsourcing and privatisation has also led to the creation of precarity and the gig economy. It is the logic of capitalism and the profit system. And this race to the bottom can only be overcome by mass organisation, class solidarity, and militant collective action. Workers of the world – unite!